Move over, "Animal House," Hollywood's got nothing on the federal government when it comes to buying booze.
Federal spending records show the government spends seven-figures a year stocking its cabinets with wine, beer and liquor.
In fiscal 2013, the last year for which there are complete records, the government spent almost $1.3 million on alcohol, more than quadruple the $315,000 spent in 2005. The spending on liquor has increased over the years toward the $1 million mark, with 2013's tab growing more than $400,000 over 2012.
"You could say that Washington's quite literally drunk on other people's money," said Jonathan Bydlak, president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, a fiscal watchdog that advocates reduced federal expenditures.
"It's very symbolic of the kind of problem we have in a whole host of government areas," he said. "Obviously, the government operates in an environment with very few restraints. So unlike a business or a nonprofit, when they want to purchase for an event, they have to weigh it against expenses that people in government don't."
Thus, the federal government's liquor purchases receive this week's Golden Hammer, a distinction awarded by The Washington Times to examples of fiscal mismanagement, wasteful spending and abuse.
The good news is that since the 2014 fiscal year began in October, the feds might be sobering up their liquor spending. Early records suggest alcohol purchases have been averaging about $50,000 a month, roughly half the monthly amount for the same period last year.
But this year's records are far from complete.
Such spending usually increases in September, the end of the federal fiscal year, when agencies are known to blow through the rest of their unspent budgets so they won't lose any funding.
The Washington Times reported in December that the State Department purchased $180,000 in liquor in September to stock embassy cabinets, right before the partial federal government shutdown. All told, the State Department last year purchased more than $400,000 in alcohol — more than triple the amount it bought in 2008.
Embassies overseas commonly host events and use liquor as a social lubricant, but the expense shows an increase in lavish spending that far outpaces inflation. The consumer price index has risen 40 points from 2005 to 2014 — roughly a 40 percent increase in prices and a far cry from the quadrupling of government purchases — according to information from the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"This hits home because it relates to your own experiences and the way you would cut down on expenses in a situation like this," Mr. Bydlak said. "When someone's out of work or generally struggling to get by, they understand that they have to cut back on these kinds of expenses."
Many of the State Department liquor purchases are used as "gratuities" for foreign officials and other people with whom the embassy works.
State Department representatives did not return calls seeking comment. But in 2010, when The Times inquired about an uptick in the purchases of alcohol, the agency said in a statement that the gifts often help the diplomatic process.
"The United States wishes to make the best impression in its dealings with foreign governments and other groups and carries out lawfully its representational activities, including its diplomatic receptions, in as effective and as culturally appropriate a manner as possible," the statement said.
It's not just liquor that has come under scrutiny, but also vessels that hold the drinks. Last year, the agency awarded a $5 million contract to a Vermont glass manufacturer to supply all its embassies and diplomatic posts with high-quality crystal dinnerware that emits "a sharp high-pitched resonant sound when tapped with a metal object, such as a fork or spoon."
The contract requested items like champagne flutes, brandy snifters, red- and white-wine glasses, sherbet glasses and finger bowls etched with the State Department logo.
"The United States international relations, national interest and success are, in part, built upon the ability of our ambassadors to entertain host country nationals in our embassies and residences abroad," the contract from the State Department said, adding that the fine glassware helps represent "U.S. cultural and manufacturing excellence to our host country guests."
But the multimillion-dollar purchase drew criticism from Capitol Hill, including from Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, who included it in his annual "Wastebook" chronicling areas where the government can reduce spending.
"If only the State Department was as particular about the performance of its programs as it is about entertaining dignitaries and diplomats," he wrote in the report.
Mr. Coburn also criticized some examples of federal grants and funding to the liquor industry.
For example, the Agriculture Department gave a $200,000 grant to Whispering Meadow Vineyards and Winery in the senator's home state to help them buy new tanks and bottling equipment.
Mr. Coburn called it a "genuine Oklahoma success story" that the winery was so popular that it needs to expand production, but he noted that with the national debt hovering around $17 trillion, the government needs to prioritize its spending.
"The wine will be fine without a government dime," he said.
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